Must York Factory Become a Ruin?

by Betty Woods

Manitoba Pageant, January 1962, Volume 7, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In a lecture on "Sub Arctic Vista", Dr. J. C. Ritchie, of the University of Manitoba, showing his slides of York Factory Depot said, "Something should be done very soon to have this building preserved. It's rapidly being destroyed. The school is badly damaged. Books are torn and lie in a shambles of broken desks. The Anglican Church is still intact." A lady familiar with the north, when asked about this vandalism said, "It's a rule of the north that anyone may enter a building to seek shelter. In our experience the Indians are less destructive than white people."

It was in June, 1957, that the Hudson's Bay Company closed their fur trading post at York Factory after 275 years of constant use. The fur trade there was at an end and a port and depot were no longer necessary. A plaque was affixed to the depot door to tell of the glorious past that this site had known. The Government was offered the site and the buildings but so far has not taken over.

York Factory (factory meant the place where the company factor was - not a place where goods were manufactured) is history-packed Canadiana. And it should be preserved as a shrine or landmark to the Company and the men who established Big Business in Canada!

In the 1680s the Company of Adventurers came to establish trading posts in the North. And York Factory has flourished since then. From 1810, when it became the Northern Headquarters of the Northern Department, it continued as chief port and supply depot for some fifty years.

Photo: An exterior view of York Factory Depot, taken in 1959. Courtesy of Dr. J. C. Ritchie.

Through York Factory in the 19th century came the fur traders, the missionaries, and the settlers who explored and opened the west. Through this gateway to the prairies there came the trade goods and provisions for the western posts and the Red River Settlement. Here too, the fur harvest was packed and shipped to London.

How many the stories woven around this post! Its surrender to the French in 1694; recapture in 1696; surrender again the following year; return to England in 1713; and with the exception of a brief period in 1782, when it was once more in French hands, its role as a port and depot until 1957.

How many and how great the adventurers who passed through this post and into the history of the west - Radisson and Groseilliers, Heyday, Cocking. From York Factory in 1690 twenty-year old Henry Kelsey journeyed southwest to the Saskatchewan prairie.

Thanks to books and letters written by people who lived at York Factory during its prime, a picture of the post can be recalled.

One young lady, Letitia Hargrave came to York Factory as a bride in the 1840s. Her newsy letters to her family back in Scotland are word pictures of the life, times and problems of that era. The writing is vivid and in language of today or tomorrow.

I was much surprised at the 'Great Swell' the Factory is. It looks beautiful. The houses are all painted yellow. The windows in some particular parts white. Some have green gauze mosquito curtains and altogether the effect is good. One house is a good size. One bedroom off each sittingroom and men servant's rooms off the kitchen. A very large closet off the diningroom.

Robert Michael Ballantyne says in his Hudson Bay or Life in the the Wilds of North America:

Here for the first time I beheld the shores of Hudson Bay; and truly their appearance was anything but prepossessing. Though only at a distance of two miles, so low and flat was the land that it appeared ten miles off, and scarcely a tree to be seen. We could just see the tops of one or two houses at York Factory, the principal depot of the country, which was seven miles up river at the mouth of which we lay. In a short time the sails of a small schooner came into sight, and in half an hour or more the Frances (named after the amiable lady of the governor, Sir George Simpson) was riding alongside.

The Point of Marsh which was the first land we made was quite low - only a few feet above the sea and studded here and there with thick willows, but not a single tree. Long lank grass covered every place, affording geese and ducks shelter in spring and autumn. In the centre of it stood the ship-beacon - a tall ungainly-looking pile which rose upward like a monster out of the water. Altogether a more desolate prospect could not well be imagined.

In a short time we reached the wooden wharf, which owing to the smallness of everything else in the vicinity, had rather an imposing look, and projected a long way out into the water; but our boat passed this and made for a small ship, on which two or three gentlemen waited to receive us.

York Factory is the principal depot of the Northern Department, from whence all the supplies for the trade are issued, and where all the furs of the district are collected and shipped for England. As may be supposed then, the establishment is a large one. There are always between thirty and forty men resident at the post, summer and winter; generally four or five clerks, a post-master, and a skipper for the small schooners. The whole is under the direction and supervision of a chief factor, or chief trader.

The principal edifice is the general store where goods to the amount of two years outfit for the whole department are stored. On one side of this is a low whitewashed house with green edgings, where visitors and temporary residents during the summer are quartered. The other is the summer mess room. Four roomy fur-stores stand at right angles to these houses thus forming the three sides of the front square.

The climate in summer is very bad but during the winter the intensity of the cold renders it healthy. During the summer the heat is extreme. Scarcely anything can be raised in the small spot of ground called by courtesy garden. Potatoes the size of wall-nuts and sometimes a turnip or cabbage are prevailed upon to grow. The woods are filled with cranberry, swampberry, black and red currants and gooseberries. "Beaver skins, black bear, brown bear, white or polar bear, grizzly, badger, buffalo, deer, moose or elk, feathers of all kinds, fisher skins, fox, black, silver, cross, white, red, blue fox, goose skins, ivory (tusks of walrus), martin skins, musquash, otter, oil, seal, whale oil, swan skins, salmon salted, wolf, wolverine. Most valuable skins are black fox brings from 25 to 30 guineas in London."

Photo: An interior view of York Factory as it appeared in 1959. Courtesy of Dr. J. C. Ritchie.

Photo: An aerial view of York Factory. Courtesy of the Author.

The people who lived in Red River Settlement went to England via the long trip by York Boat down the Red River to Lake Winnipeg then by the Hayes River to York Factory. There they boarded a boat for the often hazardous trip through ice fields to the Atlantic and finally to England or Scotland.

Here is a description of a trip from England to York Factory written by James Hargrave to his father-in-law, dated York Factory, September 9, 1847:

I am sure that you will be delighted to learn that my family and I arrived here safely after a tedious voyage of about nine weeks from Stromness during four of which we were detained among the ice in Hudson's Straits, although the month of August is the height of the warm season in such high latitude (about 62) we had hard frost every night, with heavy showers of snow which sometimes covered our decks 6 inches - I never witnessed a more desolate or discouraging scene - ice grinding together and cracking around us as the masses were moved by tides, the sky so obscured for days we could not see a mile around us; and to render our condition hopeless for the time; - the wind for about two weeks obstinately continued to blow in our teeth - however it might shift - it never by any chance shifted to a fair point.

So much for the past. What then should be our blue-print for the future of York Factory?

At his lecture Dr. Ritchie pointed out the need for action if the buildings at York Factory are to be saved. "It would be a tragedy to have the buildings deteriorate into ruin."

Think what could happen in ten years. It is the year 1970. Picture a plane flying low over what was once known as York Factory. The pilot says, "Look at the heap of rubble. Someone must have tried to build something here once. I guess the climate was too rugged."

If someone does not act soon this could well happen. Must York Factory become a ruin?

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: York Factory (Northern Manitoba)

Page revised: 3 February 2012